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Portland, O r e g o k
A Small, Good Thing
by Raymond Carver
edited by Raymond Soulard, Jr.
& Kassandra Soulard
A Small, Good Thing (1983)
by Raymond Carver
Burning Man Books is
an imprint of jf you > ve lm someom
2442 NW Market Street-#363
Seattle, Washington 98107
This volume was composed
in the AGaramond font
in PageMaker 7.0 on the
Macintosh G4 computer
Saturday afternoon she drove to the bakery in the shopping center.
After looking through a loose-leaf binder with photographs of
cakes taped onto the pages, she ordered chocolate, the child's
favorite. The cake she chose was decorated with a spaceship and
launching pad under a sprinkling of white stars, and a planet made
of red frosting at the other end. His name, SCOTTY, would be in green
letters beneath the planet. The baker, who was an older man with a
thick neck, listened without saying anything when she told him the
child would be eight years old next Monday. The baker wore a white
apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around
in back and then to the front again, where they were secured under
his heavy waist. He wiped his hands on his apron as he listened to
her. He kept his eyes down on the photographs and let her talk. He
let her take her time. He'd just come to work and he'd be there all
night, baking, and he was in no real hurry.
She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone
number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of
the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon. The
baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just
the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made
her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that. While he was bent
over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse
features and wondered if he'd ever done anything else with his life
besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it
seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker's age — a
man old enough to be her father — must have children who'd gone
through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must
be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her —
not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him.
She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy
wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside
the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an
enormous oven. A radio was playing country-western music.
The baker finished printing the information on the special
order card and closed up the binder. He looked at her and said,
"Monday morning." She thanked him and drove home.
A Small, Good Thing
On Monday morning, the birthday boy was walking to school
with another boy. They were passing a bag of potato chips back and
forth and the birthday boy was trying to find out what his friend
intended to give him for his birthday that afternoon. Without looking,
the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was
immediately knocked down by a car. He fell on his side with his head
in the gutter and his legs out in the road. His eyes were closed, but
his legs moved back and forth as if he were trying to climb over
something. His friend dropped the potato chips and started to cry.
The car had gone a hundred feet or so and stopped in the middle of
the road. The man in the driver's seat looked back over his shoulder.
He waited until the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled
a little. He looked dazed, but okay. The driver put the car into gear
and drove away.
The birthday boy didn't cry, but he didn't have anything to
say about anything either. He wouldn't answer when his friend asked
him what it felt like to be hit by a car. He walked home, and his
friend went on to school. But after the birthday boy was inside his
house and was telling his mother about it — she sitting beside him on
the sofa, holding his hands in her lap, saying, "Scotty, honey, are you
sure you feel all right, baby?" thinking she would call the doctor
anyway — he suddenly lay back on the sofa, closed his eyes, and went
limp. When she couldn't wake him up, she hurried to the telephone
and called her husband at work. Howard told her to remain calm,
remain calm, and then he called an ambulance for the child and left
for the hospital himself.
Of course, the birthday party was canceled. The child was in
the hospital with a mild concussion and suffering from shock. There'd
been vomiting, and his lungs had taken in fluid which needed
pumping out that afternoon. Now he simply seemed to be in a very
deep sleep — but no coma, Dr. Francis had emphasized, no coma,
when he saw the alarm in the parents' eyes. At eleven o'clock that
night, when the boy seemed to be resting comfortably enough after
the many X-rays and the lab work, and it was just a matter of his
waking up and coming around, Howard left the hospital. He and
Ann had been at the hospital with the child since that afternoon, and
he was going home for a short while to bathe and change clothes.
"I'll be back in an hour," he said. She nodded. "It's fine," she said.
"I'll be right here." He kissed her on the forehead, and they touched
hands. She sat in the chair beside the bed and looked at the child.
She was waiting for him to wake up and be all right. Then she could
begin to relax.
Howard drove home from the hospital. He took the wet,
dark streets very fast, then caught himself and slowed down. Until
now, his life had gone smoothly and to his satisfaction — college,
marriage, another year of college for the advanced degree in business,
a junior partnership in an investment firm. Fatherhood. He was happy
and, so far, lucky — he knew that. His parents were still living, his
brothers and his sister were established, his friends from college had
gone out to take their places in the world. So far, he had kept away
from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could
cripple or bring down a man if the luck went bad, if things suddenly
turned. He pulled into the driveway and parked. His left leg began to
tremble. He sat in the car for a minute and tried to deal with the
present situation in a rational manner. Scotty had been hit by a car
and was in the hospital, but he was going to be all right. Howard
closed his eyes and ran his hand over his face. He got out of the car
and went up to the front door. The dog was barking inside the house.
The telephone rang and rang while he unlocked the door and fumbled
for the light switch. He shouldn't have left the hospital, he shouldn't
have. "Goddamn it!" he said. He picked up the receiver and said, "I
just walked in the door!"
"There's a cake that wasn't picked up," the voice on the other
end of the line said.
"What are you saying?" Howard asked.
"A cake," the voice said. "A sixteen-dollar cake."
Howard held the receiver against his ear, trying to understand.
"I don't know anything about a cake," he said. "Jesus, what are you
"Don't hand me that," the voice said.
Howard hung up the telephone. He went into the kitchen
and poured himself some whiskey. He called the hospital. But the
A Small, Good Thing
child's condition remained the same; he was still sleeping and nothing
had changed there. While water poured into the tub, Howard lathered
his face and shaved. He'd just stretched out in the tub and closed his
eyes when the telephone rang again. He hauled himself out, grabbed
a towel, and hurried through the house, saying, "Stupid, stupid," for
having left the hospital. But when he picked up the receiver and
shouted, "Hello!" there was no sound at the other end of the line.
Then the caller hung up.
He arrived back at the hospital a little after midnight. Ann
still sat in the chair beside the bed. She looked up at Howard, and
then she looked back at the child. The child's eyes stayed closed, the
head was still wrapped in bandages. His breathing was quiet and
regular. From an apparatus over the bed hung a bottle of glucose
with a tube running from the bottle to the boy's arm.
"How is he?" Howard said. "What's all this?" waving at the
glucose and the tube.
"Dr. Francis's orders," she said. "He needs nourishment. He
needs to keep up his strength. Why doesn't he wake up, Howard? I
don't understand, if he's all right."
Howard put his hand against the back of her head. He ran
his fingers through her hair. "He's going to be all right. He'll wake up
in a little while. Dr. Francis knows what's what."
After a time he said, "Maybe you should go home and get
some rest. I'll stay here. Just don't put up with this creep who keeps
calling. Hang up right away."
"Who's calling?" she asked.
"I don't know who, just somebody with nothing better to do
than call up people. You go on now."
She shook her head. "No," she said. "I'm fine."
"Really," he said. "Go home for a while, and then come back
and spell me in the morning. It'll be all right. What did Dr. Francis
say? He said Scotty's going to be all right. We don't have to worry.
He's just sleeping now, that's all."
A nurse pushed the door open. She nodded at them as she
went to the bedside. She took the left arm out from under the covers
8 • Raymond Carver
and put her fingers on the wrist, found the pulse, then consulted her
watch. In a little while, she put the arm back under the covers and
moved to the foot of the bed, where she wrote something on a
clipboard attached to the bed.
"How is he?" Ann said. Howard's hand was a weight on her
shoulder. She was aware of the pressure from his fingers.
"He's stable," the nurse said. Then she said, "Doctor will be
in again shortly. Doctor's back in the hospital. He's making rounds
"I was saying maybe she'd want to go home and get a little
rest," Howard said. "After the doctor comes," he said.
"She could do that," the nurse said. "I think you should both
feel free to do that, if you wish." The nurse was a big Scandinavian
woman with blond hair. There was the trace of an accent in her speech.
"We'll see what the doctor says," Ann said. "I want to talk to
the doctor. I don't think he should be sleeping like this. I don't think
that's a good sign." She brought her hand up to her eyes and let her
head come forward a little. Howard's grip tightened on her shoulder,
and then his hand moved up to her neck, where his fingers began to
knead the muscles there.
"Dr. Francis will be here in a few minutes," the nurse said.
Then she left the room.
Howard gazed at his son for a time, the small chest quietly
rising and falling under the covers. For the first time since the terrible
minutes after Ann's telephone call to him at his office, he felt a genuine
fear starting in his limbs. He began shaking his head. Scotty was fine,
but instead of sleeping at home in his own bed, he was in a hospital
bed with bandages around his head and a tube in his arm. But this
help was what he needed right now.
Dr. Francis came in and shook hands with Howard, though
they'd just seen each other a few hours before. Ann got up from the
"Ann," he said and nodded. "Let's just first see how he's doing,"
the doctor said. He moved to the side of the bed and took the boy's
pulse. He peeled back one eyelid and then the other. Howard and
Ann stood beside the doctor and watched. Then the doctor turned
A Small, Good Thing • 9
back the covers and listened to the boy's heart and lungs with his
stethoscope. He pressed his fingers here and there on the abdomen.
When he was finished, he went on to the end of the bed and studied
the chart. He noted the time, scribbled something on the chart, and
then looked at Howard and Ann.
"Doctor, how is he?" Howard said. "What's the matter with
"Why doesn't he wake up?" Ann said.
The doctor was a handsome, big-shouldered man with a
tanned face. He wore a three-piece suit, a striped tie, and ivory cuff
links. His gray hair was combed along the sides of his head, and he
looked as if he had just come from a concert. "He's all right," the
doctor said. "Nothing to shout about, he could be better, I think.
But he's all right. Still, I wish he'd wake up. He should wake up pretty
soon." The doctor looked at the boy again. "We'll know some more
in a couple of hours, after the results of a few more tests are in. But
he's all right, believe me, except for a hairline fracture of the skull. He
does have that."
"Oh, no," Ann said.
"And a bit of a concussion, as I said before. Of course, you
know he's in shock," the doctor said. "Sometimes you see this in
shock cases. This sleeping."
"But he's out of any real danger?" Howard said. "You said
before he's not in a coma. You wouldn't call this a coma, then —
would you, doctor?" Howard waited. He looked at the doctor.
"No, I don't want to call it a coma," the doctor said and
glanced over at the boy once more. "He's just in a very deep sleep. It
is a restorative measure the body is taking on its own. He's out of any
real danger, I'd say that for certain, yes. But we'll know more when he
wakes up and the other tests are in," the doctor said.
"It's a coma," Ann said. "Of sorts."
"It's not a coma yet, not exactly," the doctor said. "I wouldn't
want to call it a coma. Not yet anyway. He's suffered shock. In shock
cases, this kind of reaction is common enough; it's a temporary
reaction to bodily trauma. Coma. Well, coma is a deep, prolonged
unconsciousness, something that could go on for days, or weeks even.
10 • Raymond Carver
Scotty's not in that area, not as far as we can tell. I'm certain his
condition will show improvement by morning. I'm betting it will.
We'll know more when he wakes up, which shouldn't be long now.
Of course, you may do as you like, stay here or go home for a time.
But by all means feel free to leave the hospital for a while if you want.
This is not easy, I know." The doctor gazed at the boy again, watching
him, and then he turned to Ann and said, "You try not to worry,
little mother. Believe me, we're doing all that can be done. It's just a
question of a little more time now." He nodded at her, shook hands
with Howard again, and then he left the room.
Ann put her hand over the child's forehead. "At least he doesn't
have a fever," she said. Then she said, "My god, he feels so cold,
though. Howard? Is he supposed to feel like this? Feel his head."
Howard touched the child's temples. His own breathing had
slowed. "I think he's supposed to feel this way right now," he said.
"He's in shock, remember? That's what the doctor said. The doctor
was just in here. He would have said something if Scotty wasn't okay."
Ann stood there a little while longer, working her lip with
her teeth. Then she moved over to her chair and sat down.
Howard sat in the chair next to her chair. They looked at
each other. He wanted to say something else and reassure her, but he
was afraid, too. He took her hand and put it in his lap, and this made
him feel better, her hand being there. He picked up her hand and
squeezed it. Then he just held her hand. They sat like that for a while,
watching the boy and not talking. From time to time, he squeezed
her hand. Finally, she took her hand away.
"I've been praying," she said.
She said, "I almost thought I'd forgotten how, but it came
back to me. All I had to do was close my eyes and say, 'Please God,
help us — help Scotty' and then the rest was easy. The words were
right there. Maybe if you prayed, too," she said to him.
"I've already prayed," he said. "I prayed this afternoon —
yesterday afternoon, I mean — after you called, while I was driving to
the hospital. I've been praying," he said.
A Small, Good Thing
"That's good," she said. For the first time, she felt they were
together in it, this trouble. She realized with a start that, until now, it
had only been happening to her and to Scotty She hadn't let Howard
into it, though he was there and needed all along. She felt glad to be
The same nurse came in and took the boy's pulse again and
checked the flow from the bottle hanging above the bed.
In an hour, another doctor came in. He said his name was
Parsons, from Radiology. He had a bushy moustache. He was wearing
loafers, a western shirt, and a pair of jeans.
"We're going to take him downstairs for more pictures," he
told them. "We need to do some more pictures, and we want to do a
"What's that?" Ann said. "A scan?" She stood between this
new doctor and the bed. "I thought you'd already taken all your X-
"I'm afraid we need some more," he said. "Nothing to be
alarmed about. We just need some more pictures, and we want to do
a brain scan on him."
"My God," Ann said.
"It's perfectly normal procedure in cases like this," this new
doctor said. "We just need to find out for sure why he isn't back
awake yet. It's normal medical procedure, and nothing to be alarmed
about. We'll be taking him down in a few minutes," this doctor said.
In a little while, two orderlies came into the room with a
gurney They were black-haired, dark complexioned men in white
uniforms, and they said a few words to each other in a foreign tongue
as they unhooked the boy from the tube and moved him from his
bed to the gurney. Then they wheeled him from the room. Howard
and Ann got on the same elevator. Ann gazed at the child. She closed
her eyes as the elevator began its descent. The orderlies stood at either
end of the gurney without saying anything, though once one of the
men made a comment to the other in their own language, and the
other man nodded slowly in response.
Later that morning, just as the sun was beginning to lighten
the windows in the waiting room outside the X-ray department, they
12 • Raymond Carver
brought the boy out and moved him back up to his room. Howard
and Ann rode up on the elevator with him once more, and once
more they took up their places beside the bed.
They waited all day, but still the boy did not wake up.
Occasionally, one of them would leave the room to go downstairs to
the cafeteria to drink coffee and then, as if suddenly remembering
and feeling guilty, get up from the table and hurry back to the room.
Dr. Francis came again that afternoon and examined the boy once
more and then left after telling them he was coming along and could
wake up at any minute now. Nurses, different nurses from the night
before, came in from time to time. Then a young woman from the
lab knocked and entered the room. She wore white slacks and a white
blouse and carried a little tray of things which she put on the stand
beside the bed. Without a word to them, she took blood from the
boy's arm. Howard closed his eyes as the woman found the right
place on the boy's arm and pushed the needle in.
"I don't understand this," Ann said to the woman.
"Doctor's orders," the young woman said. "I do what I'm
told. They say draw that one, I draw. What's wrong with him,
anyway?" she said. "He's a sweetie."
"He was hit by a car," Howard said. "A hit-and-run."
The young woman shook her head and looked again at the
boy. Then she took her tray and left the room.
"Why won't he wake up?" Ann said. "Howard? I want some
answers from these people."
Howard didn't say anything. He sat down again in the chair
and crossed one leg over the other. He rubbed his face. He looked at
his son and then he settled back in the chair, closed his eyes, and
went to sleep.
Ann walked to the window and looked out at the parking
lot. It was night, and cars were driving into and out of the parking lot
with their lights on. She stood at the window with her hands gripping
the sill, and knew in her heart that they were into something now,
something hard. She was afraid, and her teeth began to chatter until
she tightened her jaws. She saw a big car stop in front of the hospital
A Small, Good Thing
and someone, a woman in a long coat, get into the car. She wished
she were that woman and somebody, anybody, was driving her away
from here to somewhere else, a place where she would find Scotty
waiting for her when she stepped out of the car, ready to say Mom
and let her gather him in her arms.
In a little while, Howard woke up. He looked at the boy
again. Then he got up from the chair, stretched, and went over to
stand beside her at the window. They both stared out at the parking
lot. They didn't say anything. But they seemed to feel each other's
insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a
perfectly natural way.
The door opened and Dr. Francis came in. He was wearing a
different suit and tie this time. His gray hair was combed along the
sides of his head, and he looked as if he had just shaved. He went
straight to the bed and examined the boy. "He ought to have come
around by now. There's just no good reason for this," he said. "But I
can tell you we're all convinced he's out of any danger. We'll just feel
better when he wakes up. There's no reason, absolutely none, why he
shouldn't come around. Very soon. Oh, he'll have himself a dilly of a
headache when he does, you can count on that. But all of his signs
are fine. They're normal as can be."
"It is a coma, then?" Ann said.
The doctor rubbed his smooth cheek. "We'll call it that for
the time being, until he wakes up. But you must be worn out. This is
hard. I know this is hard. Feel free to go out for a bite," he said. "It
would do you good. I'll put a nurse in here while you're gone if you'll
feel better about going. Go and have yourselves something to eat."
"I couldn't eat anything." Ann said.
"Do what you need to do, of course," the doctor said.
"Anyway, I wanted to tell you that all the signs are good, the tests are
negative, nothing showed up at all, and just as soon as he wakes up
he'll be over the hill."
"Thank you, doctor," Howard said. He shook hands with
the doctor again. The doctor patted Howard's shoulder and went
14 • Raymond Carver
"I suppose one of us should go home and check on things,"
Howard said. "Slug needs to be fed, for one thing."
"Call one of the neighbors," Ann said. "Call the Morgans.
Anyone will feed a dog if you ask them to."
"All right," Howard said. After a while, he said, "Honey, why
don't you do it? Why don't you go home and check on things, and
then come back? It'll do you good. I'll be right here with him.
Seriously," he said. "We need to keep up our strength on this. We'll
want to be here for a while even after he wakes up."
"Why don't you go?" she said. "Feed Slug. Feed yourself."
"I already went," he said. "I was gone for exactly an hour and
fifteen minutes. You go home for an hour and freshen up. Then come
She tried to think about it, but she was too tired. She closed
her eyes and tried to think about it again. After a time, she said,
"Maybe I will go home for a few minutes. Maybe if I'm not just
sitting here watching him every second, he'll wake up and be all right.
You know? Maybe he'll wake up if I'm not here. I'll go home and take
a bath and put on clean clothes. I'll feed Slug. Than I'll come back."
"I'll be right here," he said. "You go on home, honey. I'll
keep an eye on things here." His eyes were bloodshot and small, as if
he'd been drinking for a long time. His clothes were rumpled. His
beard had come out again. She touched his face, and then she took
her hand back. She understood he wanted to be by himself for a
while, not have to talk or share his worry for a time. She picked up
her purse from the nightstand, and he helped her into her coat.
"I won't be gone long," she said.
"Just sit and rest for a little while when you get home," he
said. "Eat something. Take a bath. After you get out of the bath, just
sit for a while and rest. It'll do you a world of good, you'll see. Then
come back," he said. "Let's try not to worry. You heard what Dr.
She stood in her coat for a minute trying to recall the doctor's
exact words, looking for any nuances, any hint of something behind
his words other than what he had said. She tried to remember if his
expression had changed any when he bent over to examine the child.
A Small, Good Thing
She remembered the way his features had composed themselves as he
rolled back the child's eyelids, and then listened to his breathing.
She went to the door, where she turned and looked back. She
looked at the child, and then she looked at the father. Howard nodded.
She stepped out of the room and pulled the door closed behind her.
She went past the nurses' station and down to the end of the
corridor, looking for the elevator. At the end of the corridor, she
turned to her right and entered a little waiting room where a Negro
family sat in wicker chairs. There was a middle-aged man in khaki
and pants, a baseball cap pushed back on his head. A large woman
wearing a housedress and slippers was slumped in one of the chairs.
A teenaged girl in jeans, hair done in dozens of little braids, lay
stretched out in one of the chairs smoking a cigarette, her legs crossed
at the ankles. The family swung their eyes to Ann as she entered the
room. The little table was littered with hamburger wrappers and
"Franklin," the large woman said as she roused herself. "Is it
about Franklin?" Her eyes widened. "Tell me now, lady," the woman
said. "Is it about Franklin?" She was trying to rise from her chair, but
the man had closed his hand over her arm.
"Here, here," he said. "Evelyn."
"I'm sorry," Ann said. "I'm looking for the elevator. My son
is in the hospital, and now I can't find the elevator."
"Elevator is down that way, turn left," the man said as he
aimed a finger.
The girl drew on her cigarette and stared at Ann. Her eyes
narrowed to slits, and her broad lips parted slowly as she let the smoke
escape. The Negro woman let her head fall on her shoulder and looked
away from Ann, no longer interested.
"My son was hit by a car," Ann said to the man. She seemed
to need to explain herself. "He has a concussion and a little skull
fracture, but he's going to be all right. He's in shock now, but it might
be some kind of coma, too. That's what really worries us, the coma
part. I'm going out for a little while, but my husband is with him.
Maybe he'll wake up while I'm gone."
16 • Raymond Carver
"That's too bad," the man said and shifted in the chair. He
shook his head. He looked down at the table, and then he looked
back at Ann. She was still standing there. He said, "Our Franklin,
he's on the operating table. Somebody cut him. Tried to kill him.
There was a fight where he was at. At this party. They say he was just
standing and watching. Not bothering nobody. But that don't mean
nothing these days. Now he's on the operating table. We're just hoping
and praying, that's all we can do now." He gazed at her steadily.
Ann looked at the girl again, who was still watching her, and
at the older woman, who kept her head down, but whose eyes were
now closed. Ann saw the lips moving silently, making words. She
had an urge to ask what those words were. She wanted to talk more
with these people who were in the same kind of waiting she was in.
She was afraid, and they were afraid. They had that in common. She
would have liked to have said something else about the accident, told
them more about Scotty, that it had happened on the day of his
birthday, Monday, and that he was still unconscious. Yet she didn't
know how to begin. She stood looking at them without saying
She went down the corridor the man had indicated and found
the elevator. She waited a minute in front of the closed doors, still
wondering if she was doing the right thing. Then she put out her
finger and touched the button.
She pulled into the driveway and cut the engine. She closed
her eyes and leaned her head against the wheel for a minute. She
listened to the ticking sounds the engine made as it began to cool.
Then she got out of the car. She could hear the dog barking inside
the house. She went to the front door, which was unlocked. She went
inside and turned on lights and put on a kettle of water for tea. She
opened some dog food and fed Slug on the back porch. The dog ate
in hungry little smacks. It kept running into the kitchen to see that
she was going to stay. As she sat down on the sofa with her tea, the
"Yes!" she said as she answered. "Hello!"
A Small, Good Thing
"Mrs. Weiss," a man's voice said. It was five o'clock in the
morning, and she thought she could hear machinery or equipment
of some kind in the background.
"Yes, yes! What is it?" she said. "This is Mrs. Weiss. This is
she. What is it, please?" She listened to whatever it was in the
background. "Is it Scotty, for Christ's sake?"
"Scotty," the man's voice said. "It's about Scotty, yes. It has to
do with Scotty, that problem. Have you forgotten about Scotty?" the
man said. Then he hung up.
She dialed the hospital's number and asked for the third floor.
She demanded information about her son from the nurse who
answered the telephone. Then she asked to speak to her husband. It
was, she said, an emergency.
She waited, turning the telephone cord in her fingers. She
closed her eyes and felt sick at her stomach. She would have to make
herself eat. Slug came in from the back porch and lay down near her
feet. He wagged his tail. She pulled at his ear while he licked her
fingers. Howard was on the line.
"Somebody just called here," she said. She twisted the
telephone cord. "He said it was about Scotty," she cried.
"Scotty's fine," Howard told her. "I mean, he's still sleeping.
There's been no change. The nurse has been in twice since you've
been gone. A nurse or else a doctor. He's all right."
"This man called. He said it was about Scotty," she told him.
"Honey, you rest for a little while, you need the rest. It must
be that same caller I had. Just forget it. Come back down here after
you've rested. Then we'll have breakfast or something."
"Breakfast," she said. "I don't want any breakfast."
"You know what I mean," he said. "Juice, something. I don't
know. I don't know anything, Ann. Jesus, I'm not hungry, either.
Ann, it's hard to talk now. I'm standing here at the desk. Dr. Francis
is coming again at eight o'clock this morning. He's going to have
something to tell us then, something more definite. That's what one
of the nurses said. She didn't know any more than that. Ann? Honey,
maybe we'll know something more then. At eight o'clock. Come back
18 • Raymond Carver
here before eight. Meanwhile, I'm right here and Scotty's all right.
He's still the same," he added.
"I was drinking a cup of tea," she said, "when the telephone
rang. They said it was about Scotty. There was a noise in the
background. Was there a noise in the background on that call you
"I don't remember," he said. "Maybe the driver of the car,
maybe he's a psychopath and found out about Scotty somehow. But
I'm here with him. Just rest like you were going to do. Take a bath
and come back by seven or so, and we'll talk to the doctor together
when he gets here. It's going to be all right, honey. I'm here, and there
are doctors and nurses around. They say his condition is stable."
"I'm scared to death," she said.
She ran water, undressed, and got into the tub. She washed
and dried quickly, not taking the time to wash her hair. She put on
clean underwear, wool slacks, and a sweater. She went into the living
room, where the dog looked up at her and let its tail thump once
against the floor. It was just starting to get light outside when she
went out to the car.
She drove into the parking lot of the hospital and found a
space close to the front door. She felt she was in some obscure way
responsible for what had happened to the child. She let her thoughts
move to the Negro family. She remembered the name Franklin and
the table that was covered with hamburger papers, and the teenaged
girl staring at her as she drew on her cigarette. "Don't have children,"
she told the girl's image as she entered the front door of the hospital.
"For God's sake, don't."
She took the elevator up to the third floor with two nurses
who were just going on duty. It was Wednesday morning, a few
minutes before seven. There was a page for a Dr. Madison as the
elevator doors slid open on the third floor. She got off behind the
nurses, who turned in the other direction and continued the
conversation she had interrupted when she'd gotten into the elevator.
She walked down the corridor to the little alcove where the Negro
family had been waiting. They were gone now, but the chairs were
A Small, Good Thing
scattered in such a way that it looked as if people had just jumped up
from them the minute before. The tabletop was cluttered with the
same cups and papers, the ashtray was filled with cigarette butts.
She stopped at the nurses' station. A nurse was standing behind
the counter, brushing her hair and yawning.
"There was a Negro boy in surgery last night," Ann said.
"Franklin was his name. His family was in the waiting room. I'd like
to inquire about his condition."
A nurse who was sitting at a desk behind the counter looked
up from the chart in front of her. The telephone buzzed and she
picked up the receiver, but she kept her eyes on Ann.
"He passed away," said the nurse at the counter. The nurse
held the hairbrush and kept looking at her. "Are you a friend of the
family or what?"
"I met the family last night," Ann said. "My own son is in
the hospital. I guess he's in shock. We don't know for sure what's
wrong. I just wondered about Franklin, that's all. Thank you." She
moved down the corridor. Elevator doors the same color as the walls
slid open and a gaunt, bald man in white pants and white canvas
shoes pulled a heavy cart off the elevator. She hadn't noticed these
doors last night. The man wheeled the cart out into the corridor and
stopped in front of the room nearest the elevator and consulted a
clipboard. Then he reached down and slid a tray out of the car. He
rapped lightly on the door and entered the room. She could smell the
unpleasant odors of warm food as she passed the cart. She hurried on
without looking at any of the nurses and pushed open the door to
the child's room.
Howard was standing at the window with his hands behind
his back. He turned around as she came in.
"How is he?" she said. She went over to the bed. She dropped
her purse on the floor beside the nightstand. It seemed to her she had
been gone a long time. She touched the child's face. "Howard?"
"Dr. Francis was here a little while ago," Howard said. She
looked at him closely and thought his shoulders were bunched a little.
"I thought he wasn't coming until eight o'clock this morning,"
she said quickly.
20 • Raymond Carver
"There was another doctor with him. A neurologist."
"A neurologist," she said.
Howard nodded. His shoulders were bunching, she could
see that. "What'd they say, Howard? For Christ's sake, what'd they
say? What is it?"
"They said they're going to take him down and run more
tests on him, Ann. They think they're going to operate, honey. Honey,
they are going to operate. They can't figure out why he won't wake
up. It's more than just shock or concussion, they know that much
now. It's in his skull, the fracture, it has something, something to do
with that, they think. So they're going to operate. I tried to call you,
but I guess you'd already left the house."
"Oh, God," she said. "Oh, please, Howard, please," she said,
taking his arms.
"Look!" Howard said. "Scotty! Look, Ann!" He turned her
toward the bed.
The boy had opened his eyes, then closed them. He opened
them again now. The eyes stared straight ahead for a minute, then
moved slowly in his head until they rested on Howard and Ann, then
traveled away again.
"Scotty," his mother said, moving to the bed.
"Hey, Scott," his father said. "Hey, son."
They leaned over the bed. Howard took the child's hand in
his hands and began to pat and squeeze the hand. Ann bent over the
boy and kissed his forehead again and again. She put her hands on
either side of his face. "Scotty, honey, it's Mommy and Daddy," she
The boy looked at them, but without any sign of recognition.
Then his mouth opened, his eyes scrunched closed, and he howled
until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and
soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his
throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth.
The doctors called it a hidden occlusion and said it was a
one-in-a-million circumstance. Maybe if it could have been detected
somehow and surgery undertaken immediately, they could have saved
A Small, Good Thing
him. But more than likely not. In any case, what would they have
been looking for? Nothing had shown up in the tests or in the X-
Dr. Francis was shaken. "I can't tell you how badly I feel. I'm
so very sorry I can't tell you," he said as he led them into the doctors'
lounge. There was a doctor sitting in a chair with his legs hooked
over the back of another chair, watching an early-morning TV show.
He was wearing a green delivery-room outfit, loose green pants and
green blouse, and a green cap that covered his hair. He looked at
Howard and Ann and then looked at Dr. Francis. He got to his feet
and turned off the set and went out of the room. Dr. Francis guided
Ann to the sofa, sat down beside her, and began to talk in a low,
consoling voice. At one point, he leaned over and embraced her. She
could feel his chest rising and falling evenly against her shoulder. She
kept her eyes open and let him hold her. Howard went into the
bathroom, but he left the door open. After a violent fit of weeping,
he ran water and washed his face. Then he came out and sat down at
the little table that held a telephone. He looked at the telephone as
though deciding what to do first. He made some calls. After a time,
Dr. Francis used the telephone.
"Is there anything else I can do for the moment?" he asked
Howard shook his head. Ann stared at Dr. Francis as if unable
to comprehend his words.
The doctor walked them to the hospital's front door. People
were entering and leaving the hospital. It was eleven o'clock in the
morning. Ann was aware of how slowly, almost reluctantly, she moved
her feet. It seemed to her that Dr. Francis was making them leave
when she felt they should stay, when it would be more the right thing
to do to stay. She gazed out into the parking lot and then turned
around and looked back at the front of the hospital. She began shaking
her head. "No, no," she said. "I can't leave him here, no." She heard
herself say that and thought how unfair it was that the only words
that came out were the sort of words used on TV shows where people
were stunned by violent or sudden deaths. She wanted her words to
be her own. "No," she said, and for some reason the memory of the
22 • Raymond Carver
Negro woman's head lolling on the woman's shoulder came to her.
"No," she said again.
"I'll be talking to you later in the day," the doctor was saying
to Howard. "There are still some things that have to be done, things
that have to be cleared up to our satisfaction. Some things that need
"An autopsy," Howard said.
Dr. Francis nodded.
"I understand," Howard said. Then he said, "Oh, Jesus. No,
I don't understand, doctor. I can't. I can't. I just can't."
Dr. Francis put his arm around Howard's shoulders. "I'm sorry.
God, how I'm sorry." He let go of Howard's shoulders and held out
his hand. Howard looked at the hand, and then he took it. Dr. Francis
put his arms around Ann once more. He seemed full of some goodness
she didn't understand. She let her head rest on his shoulder, but her
eyes stayed open. She kept looking at the hospital. As they drove out
of the parking lot, she looked back at the hospital.
At home, she sat on the sofa with her hands in her coat
pockets. Howard closed the door to the child's room. He got the
coffee-maker going and then he found an empty box. He had thought
to pick up some of the child's things that were scattered around the
living room. But instead he sat down beside her on the sofa, pushed
the box to one side, and leaned forward, arms between his knees. He
began to weep. She pulled his head over into her lap and patted his
shoulder. "He's gone," she said. She kept patting his shoulder. Over
his sobs, she could hear the coffee-maker hissing in the kitchen.
"There, there," she said tenderly. "Howard, he's gone. He's gone and
now we'll have to get used to that. To being alone."
In a little while, Howard got up and began moving aimlessly
around the room with the box, not putting anything into it, but
collecting some things together on the floor at one end of the sofa.
She continued to sit with her hands in her coat pockets. Howard put
the box down and brought coffee into the living room. Later, Ann
made calls to relatives. After each call had been placed and the party
had answered, Ann would blurt out a few words and cry for a minute.
A Small, Good Thing
Then she would quietly explain, in a measured voice, what had
happened and tell them about arrangements. Howard took the box
out to the garage, where he saw the child's bicycle. He dropped the
box and sat down on the pavement beside the bicycle. He took hold
of the bicycle awkwardly so that it leaned against his chest. He held
it, the rubber pedal sticking into his chest. He gave the wheel a turn.
Ann hung up the telephone after talking to her sister. She
was looking up another number when the telephone rang. She picked
it up on the first ring.
"Hello," she said, and she heard something in the background,
a humming noise. "Hello!" she said. "For God's sake," she said. "Who
is this? What is it you want?"
"Your Scotty, I got him ready for you," the man's voice said.
"Did you forget him?"
"You evil bastard!" she shouted into the receiver. "How can
you do this, you evil son of a bitch?"
"Scotty," the man said. "Have you forgotten about Scotty?"
Then the man hung up on her.
Howard heard the shouting and came in to find her with her
arms over the table, weeping. He picked up the receiver and listened
to the dial tone.
Much later, just before midnight, after they had dealt with
many things, the telephone rang again.
"You answer it," she said. "Howard, it's him, I know." They
were sitting at the kitchen table with coffee in front of them. Howard
had a small glass of whiskey beside his cup. He answered on the third
"Hello," he said. "Who is this? Hello! Hello!" The line went
dead. "He hung up," Howard said. "Whoever it was."
"It was him," she said. "That bastard. I'd like to kill him,"
she said. "I'd like to shoot him and watch him kick," she said.
"Ann, my God," he said.
"Could you hear anything?" she said. "In the background? A
noise, machinery, something humming?"
24 • Raymond Carver
"Nothing, really. Nothing like that," he said. "There wasn't
much time. I think there was some radio music. Yes, there was was a
radio going, that's all I could tell. I don't know what in God's name is
going on," he said.
She shook her head. "If I could, could get my hands on him."
It came to her then. She knew who it was. Scotty, the cake, the
telephone number. She pushed the chair away from the table and got
up. "Drive me down to the shopping center," she said. "Howard."
"What are you saying?"
"The shopping center. I know who it is who's calling. I know
who it is. It's the baker, the son-of-a-bitching baker, Howard. I had
him bake a cake for Scotty's birthday. That's who calling. That's who
has the number and keeps calling us. To harass us about that cake.
The baker, that bastard."
They drove down to the shopping center. The sky was clear
and the stars were out. It was cold, and they ran the heater in the car.
They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were
closed, but there were cars at the far end of the lot in front of the
movie theater. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked
through the glass they could see a light in the back room and, now
and then, a big man in an apron moving in and out of the white,
even light. Through the glass, she could see the display cases and
some little tables with chairs. She tried the door. She rapped on the
glass. But if the baker heard them, he gave no sign. He didn't look in
They drove around behind the bakery and parked. They got
out of the car. There was a lighted window too high up for them to
see inside. A sign near the back door said the pantry bakery, special
orders. She could hear faintly a radio playing inside and something
creak — an oven door as it was pulled down? She knocked on the
door and waited. Then she knocked again, louder. The radio was
turned down and there was a scraping sound now, the distinct sound
of something, a drawer, being pulled open and then closed.
Someone unlocked the door and opened it. The baker stood
in the light and peered out at them. "I'm closed for business," he
A Small, Good Thing
said. "What do you want at this hour? It's midnight. Are you drunk
She stepped into the light that fell through the open door.
He blinked his heavy eyelids as he recognized her. "It's you," he said.
"It's me," she said. "Scotty's mother. This is Scotty's father.
We'd like to come in."
The baker said,"I'm busy now. I have work to do."
She had stepped inside the doorway anyway. Howard came
in behind her. The baker moved back. "It smells like a bakery in here.
Doesn't it smell like a bakery in here, Howard?"
"What do you want?" the baker said. "Maybe you want your
cake? That's it, you decided you want your cake. You ordered a cake,
"You're pretty smart for a baker," she said. "Howard, this is
the man who's been calling us." She clenched her fists. She stared at
him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made
her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men.
"Just a minute here," the baker said. "You want to pick up
your three-day-old cake? That it? I don't want to argue with you,
lady. There it sits over there, getting stale. I'll give it to you for half of
what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It's no good to
me, no good to anyone now. It cost me time and money to make that
cake. If you want it, okay, if you don't, that's okay, too. I have to get
back to work." He looked at them and rolled his tongue behind his
"More cakes," she said. She knew she was in control of it,
what was increasing in her. She was calm.
"Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living,"
the baker said. He wiped his hands on his apron. "I work night and
day in here, trying to make ends meet." A look crossed Ann's face
that made the baker move back and say, "No trouble, now." He
reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right
hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand. "You
want the cake or not? I have to get back to work. Bakers work at
night," he said again. His eyes were small, mean-looking, she thought,
26 • Raymond Carver
nearly lost in the bristly flesh around his cheeks. His neck was thick
"I know bakers work at night," Ann said. "They make phone
calls at night, too. You bastard," she said.
The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand.
He glanced at Howard. "Careful, careful," he said to Howard.
"My son's dead," she said with a cold, even finality. "He was
hit by a car Monday morning. We've been waiting with him until he
died. But, of course, you couldn't be expected to know that, could
you? Bakers can't know everything — can they, Mr. Baker? But he's
dead. He's dead, you bastard!" Just as suddenly as it had welled in
her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling
of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled
with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders
rocking back and forth. "It isn't fair," she said. "It isn't, isn't fair."
Howard put his hand at the small of her back and looked at
the baker. "Shame on you," Howard said to him. "Shame."
The baker put the rolling pin back on the counter. He undid
his apron and threw it on the counter. He looked at them, and then
he shook his head slowly. He pulled a chair out from under the card
table that held papers and receipts, an adding machine, and a
telephone directory. "Please sit down," he said. "Let me get you a
chair," he said to Howard. "Sit down now, please." The baker went
into the front of the shop and returned with two little wrought-iron
chairs. "Please sit down, you people."
Ann wiped her eyes and looked at the baker. "I wanted to kill
you," she said. "I wanted you dead."
The baker had cleared a space for them at the table. He shoved
the adding machine to one side, along with the stacks of notepaper
and receipts. He pushed the telephone directory onto the floor, where
it landed with a thud. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their
chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too.
"Let me say how sorry I am," the baker said, putting his elbows
on the table. "God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I'm just a
baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years
ago, I was a different kind of human being. I've forgotten, I don't
A Small, Good Thing • 27
know for sure. But I'm not any longer, if I ever was. Now I'm just a
baker. That don't excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply
sorry. I'm sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this," the baker
said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to
reveal his palms. "I don't have any children myself, so I can only
imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that
I'm sorry. Forgive me, if you can," the baker said. "I'm not an evil
man, I don't think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to
understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore,
it would seem. Please," the man said, "let me ask you if you can find
it in your hearts to forgive me?"
It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the
table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker
looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the
table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found
cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton
of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.
"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope
you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating
is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven,
the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread
the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited.
He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to
eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's
more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry,
and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which
pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully.
Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the
baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of
loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to
him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless
all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and
endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over.
Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes.
Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine
all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker.
He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people.
This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a
heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It
had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him.
They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like
daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the
early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they
did not think of leaving.
A Small, Good Thing
30 • Raymond Carver